Friday, February 24, 2012

Contraception Wars and Woes

I share at least one attribute of the Catholic Bishops, now at war with the Obama administration: I don’t want to talk about contraception, either.

I’ve taught for over three decades at the university which some characterize as the place where the American Catholic Church “does it’s thinking.” Well, here are some thoughts on the matter. The first is the one above: the Catholic Bishops are really put out, miffed, because they don’t want to talk about contraception, but the Obama administration, allegedly, has forced their hands.

The Bishops don’t mind talking about abortion. They find some purchase on that topic, some sympathy with the larger American public, along with a good many of the “faithful”. Indeed, most everyone wants the number of abortions decreased to as close to zero as possible. But a debate over contraception puts the Bishops in another place altogether.

Had the Obama administration announced their “compromise” first, rather than second, after a bit of clerical harrumphing, the issue may have left the public square and gone away. Indeed, more than half the states, as it’s been pointed out, already have similar mandates, and Catholic universities and hospitals have been dispensing “birth control” for a variety of reasons for many years.

It’s not clear whether the Obama administration took this strategy – getting the Bishops all exercised – deliberately, or accidently, by mishandling the policy rollout. Regardless, it’s out there now. The Bishops don’t want to talk about contraception, because it puts a spotlight on one of the Church’s least defensible, and most paradoxical, strictures.

Oh, it can be defended alright: as a matter of faith. A show of loyalty demanded of the flock, an act of hazing and abnegation, aka sacrifice. My generation wasn’t to eat meat on Fridays, though this dietary no-no eventually just went away. But religions require this sort of thing on the part of their co-religionists; the secular version pops up in the news now and then when fraternity members die because their hazing rituals had become too intense.

And speaking against contraception in the 21st century makes the Bishops look anti-science. Catholics are not anti-science, though a number of their evangelical supporters certainly are. It puts Catholics in a crowd that they don’t necessarily want to be in: All those anti-evolutionary troglodytes scraping their knuckles on the ground, the we-don’t-descend-from-apes crowd.

Whenever the word “abortifacient” is uttered, the attack-on-science banner is raised. We’re down to molecules and bio-chemistry at that point. But, it is an attempt to drag contraception onto safer ground, or, at least, ground they have captured, the well-tilled anti-abortion fields.

But another important, but hardly mentioned, reason the Bishops don’t want to talk about contraception is it makes them talk about themselves, which highlights, in the starkest ways, the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church and its women problem. The control of women. And the Bishops did not want to get into any of that, since it is obvious to all that a totally male clergy, saddled with a vow of celibacy, wants its parishioners to be like them, mostly celibate, however preposterous that sounds today. Abortion, however, lets the Bishops talk about two people, one of whom might be male.

The pro-abortion movement has been saddled with a all-too-focused name. It’s actually a pro-woman movement, insofar it was always women who took the lead to change the laws of the land. The pro-“life” anti-abortion movement, began as a male-dominated movement and male figures are featured most prominently still. You should have seen the odious figures who showed up at Notre Dame when President Obama’s commencement speech was announced: Alan Keyes and Randall Terry, grubbing for attention (which they got).

Since the early 70s and the passage of Roe v. Wade the term Catholic Right has been more or less coined. Back when I originally published The Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left–there is a new edition with a fresh Afterword out – what was new was the Catholic Left. There had been the old Dorothy Day Catholic Left, but the anti-war priests and nuns of the Vietnam period were the New.

They were in opposition to the Bishops back then, too; but the Catholic Church wasn’t thought of as the “Right” back then. The Bishops were, of course, that, but then there was no need for labels. But over the decades a Catholic Right was created, or, rather, more pertinently, a religious right was hatched, to try to ecumenically turn back the progressive impulses that reared their multiple heads throughout the period. The Catholic Bishops being the repository of authority does not go unchallenged, as Gary Gutting effectively points out.

Natural law, of course, is full of contraception. Garry Wills goes into the theological background of “natural law,“ but I prefer a more pragmatic approach: Fertilized eggs are lost in the thousands, if not millions, world-wide by couples trying to get pregnant. (There is always a poignance in the case of couples trying to get pregnant and the majority who are trying to avoid it, or those who become pregnant at the drop of a hat.) And Natural law also includes the ever-present, it seems, tried-and-true, centuries old, methods of birth control that include famine, pestilence, natural disasters; and, in place of abortion, we have infanticide. You see where all this sort of logic can lead.

Catholics have wrestled with contraception and the Church’s teachings on it over the decades, generation by generation. The younger generation seems to be wrestling less, given the advances in the methods of contraception now available. One of my sisters (I’m from a family of eight children) got birth control pills back in the 1960s when the doses involved would choke a horse (or, at least, make a horse infertile), because of her “irregular” periods, before she went off to a nunnery for a couple of years.

My mother, at the same time, had three painful, late miscarriages in a row, after having her eighth child, when a friendly priest finally permitted her to use birth control, saying she had brought enough Catholic children into the world. Such stories of my mother’s generation are legion – and often heartrending.

But, enough. Religion may no longer be the opiate of the people, but it is certainly the father – not the mother – of all political wedge issues.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Not Saving Social Security, Again (An Update)

The Republicans, once again, have “caved” on allowing the extension of the payroll tax reduction – if you consider furthering their anti-Social Security strategy an act of caving. Among the many stories the media has misreported over recent decades, Social Security is one of the most egregious. I have been writing about Social Security on and off for over twenty years, but the subject bears repeating. Even calling the monies going into the program a “payroll tax” is misleading. They are premiums, since Social Security is an insurance program.

It is actually called the federal Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program. So, you may call them taxes, but they are premiums. Do you want to stop paying your fire, car, life insurance premiums?

Insurance is usually a bet, because no one knows what hazards lie ahead or how long anyone lives. Do you moan the loss of your car insurance if you never have a wreck? The system works, since there are different outcomes for different people. It needs to be a pool of most everyone to insure a basic floor for everyone.

The anti-Social Security privatizers, though their various “think tanks” and talking heads, have spread so much misinformation about the program over the last three decades, it is no surprise that so many people are confused.

A curious shell game is being played by the anti-SSS forces: they have convinced most journalists that Social Security is supposed to be a “pay as you go” system. It is actually a transfer system, where one generation transfers wealth to the next. There wouldn’t be a trust fund surplus nearing 3 trillion if it was, or had been, a pay-as-you-go system. But, the fact that Social Security has taken in for years more than it has put out has somehow been ignored, made meaningless. It’s the new GOP mantra: keep saying it until people believe it.

George W. Bush, during his push for privatization, called the bonds issued to cover the Social Security surplus over the years worthless. (Tell the Chinese that the bonds they have been buying from us are worthless; see what kind of reaction you get.) Now the yearly surplus is less, but it remains – because of the interest paid on Social Security’s total income, according to the Social Security Media Watch Project. If the unemployment rate was cut in half, one wouldn’t even have to count the interest to see a yearly surplus.

But, GOP politicians and some journalists don’t consider the Social Security trust fund surplus a surplus; they consider it debt, because it has been spent: given to Wall Street and the military industrial complex, mainly. We arrive at the sad irony that America’s working stiffs have been paying the bonuses for all the investment bankers over the years, as well as for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that President Bush kept off the books, while lowering taxes for the wealthy at the same time.

But, the shell-game of now-you-see-the-surplus-now-you-don’t in the media continues. Journalists at both the Washington Post and the Kansas City Star have swallowed the sugar water that it doesn’t really exist. In the Post, Lori Montgomery wrote in October, “The 2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief,” and E. Thomas McClanahan, on the K. C. Star’s editorial board, claimed recently, “The payroll tax holiday is also destroying the myth of the trust fund.” Such remarks have now become the chief talking point of the anti-Social Security forces. Of course, they don’t say what I’ve said: We’ve stolen the payroll “tax” surplus over the years to fund the 1 percent.

And now, we have the sad, smaller irony that the American workers are continuing to provide for Obama’s administration tiny stimulus program, by means of lowering the “payroll tax.” We paycheck workers are giving ourselves the puny amounts each month that Obama takes credit for.

This is even worse. Everyone is used to the Republicans trying to damage Social Security. But it is the Democrats who need to be watched. They like this “tax” break because it is so “efficient”. No need to cut checks, start a program. Just reduce the amount coming in, and, voila, money in everyone’s pocket. Of course, it is their own money, which is being taken out of their insurance system and will eventually have to be put back – but at what cost? More federal workers furloughed? More Medicaid and Medicare cuts?

It was too tempting for the Democratic suits in Washington, all that efficiency. They consider it a version of domestic realpolitik. But their chipping away at the system allows other attacks to wiggle in. They’ve managed to give Social Security one fatal attribute of the 401(k) “retirement” program. It can be raided, gotten to when “emergencies” arise, which is why, among other reasons, so many 401(k)s have such small amounts in them at retirement.

But, again, the chief irony is that working Americans have been funding the bubble spending, the wars and the bonuses, as George W. Bush merrily spent the Social Security trust fund surplus and now everyone bemoans the deficit and wants to have the people, the workers, who contributed the cash for the bubble, take the hit and change Social Security so they will be paid back less, get fewer benefits and take the haircut that the Wall Streeters have avoided, in order for the rich to continue to give less and take more.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Halftime in Pink America

The Super Bowl was, well, super. The game had its moments: the first “free” touchdown in the big game that was, supposedly, not meant to happen (but once a running back turns around in a sitting position on the goal line, he’s only gonna fall in backwards, pushed by all the momentum he already generated) and Tom Brady’s last-second Hail Mary pass that was almost caught by a Patriot, but not quite.

But there were other Hail Mary(s) thrown that night. First there was Madonna, the original Hail Mary, her namesake that is. The present earth-bound Madonna, all 53 years of her, did the cougar world proud. All those hours working out over the years paying off big. Now there was a production! Those folk know how to put on a show. I kept wondering how many of its participants were in the Actors Equity union, but it was abundantly clear this sort of spectacle has replaced the Broadway Musical in the hearts of the younger generation, used to these sorts of extravaganzas at the concerts of pop singers for at least two decades now.

Madonna’s performance might have been aimed at her faux protégé, Lady Gaga, showing Gaga who’s who and what’s what. But there were also echoes of other, older grand dames, for instance, Elizabeth Taylor in “Cleopatra,” given all the beef-cake “slaves” supposedly hauling Madonna onto the Lucas Oil field’s fifty yard line. After the Material Girl’s exhortation of capitalism unbound, she signed off with World Peace. Ho, ho, ho.

But it was another halftime performance that seems to have more legs: Clint Eastwood and his Chrysler commercial. It was instantaneously clear that it would be taken as an Obama endorsement. From Chrysler, which we, the people, more or less, still own. But, what struck me was that this commercial may be the first time the word “halftime” was used, or understood, politically to stand for a second term presidential election.

I wrote a book about the ‘96 second term election, Clinton v. Dole (Campaign America ‘96: The View From the Couch), which covered how the campaign was covered, and I don’t recall any of the hundreds of commentators I heard ever use the term “halftime” that way, meaning the pause between a possible two terms for a sitting president. But its usage was unmistakable in the Eastwood commercial.

Which is why Republicans are complaining. But, it’s been another bad week for the GOP, because of yet more Hail Mary(s). The Susan G. Komen for the Cure pink ribbon flap, defunding Planned Parenthood and, consequently, the women of America reacting and Komen’s decision eventually reversed. This, too, was a commercial of sorts, but one aimed at Mitt Romney, not Barack Obama. The Komen “charity” had managed all these years to avoid scrutiny the way anyone not running for president avoids scrutiny.

But, defunding Planned Parenthood put them in the election season spotlight and what was seen was not very pleasant. It was like seeing Mitt Romney’s 2010 and the “summary” of his 2011 taxes: all those Swiss and Cayman accounts. In Komen’s case, it was the ratio of what was raised yearly and what was given to breast cancer research, roughly 20%, while around 80% went into the fund raising itself. It was the same, it appeared, as the salaries and bonuses of the 1%, because the Komen foundation was run like any Wall Street hedge fund. The lion’s share in expenses, a pittance for the disease in question. Komen is certainly a job creator, since it does employ a lot of lawyers suing people who want to use the word “cure” in their fund raising.

Those who were paying attention learned more about the Komen foundation in the last ten days than they ever knew the last ten years and what they had known was next to nothing: How Republican it was, how its new, and now resigned, V.P., Karen Handel, was a GOP losing candidate running for governor in Georgia, like Romney is currently doing, on the I hate Planned Parenthood GOP platform.

Karen Handel carries on the GOP tradition of calling black white when she said, in her resignation letter, “no one’s political beliefs” were involved in Komen’s decision to defund PP. This is all an election period neurosis, an emperor’s new clothes phenomenon. The naked truth is clothed. What everyone can see is false I will claim as true.

But, back to the Super Bowl: Madonna said there would be no “wardrobe malfunction” in her show. Maybe not, though that malfunction had to do with a breast, and, thanks to the Komen foundation and Karen Handel, the malfunctions have been many and frequent and now Komen world stands as naked and exposed as poor Mitt Romney.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Let me be blunt: when Republicans run against an incumbent Democrat president, they usually choose a damaged war veteran as their candidate. The ‘96 election set the pattern: Bob Dole v. Bill Clinton. (A less caustic analysis is that they pick someone who has run before in primaries and lost. It was Dole’s turn, given that logic.)

The secondary GOP default for picking a nominee is to hand it over to whichever suitable patrician is available, one preferably with strong political family connections. In 2000 that was George W. Bush, who, though absent of most of his father’s abilities, had one large advantage his father lacked: his six-pack ordinariness, his common man touch. It proved to be the right cultural mix for the times, even though Al Gore won the popular vote and had the election stolen out from under him by the Supreme Court.

The Democrats in 2004 threw up their own patrician, John Kerry, also a war vet, perhaps damaged, at least by the Swift Boat forces. Then, in 2008, Barack Obama continued his run of electoral luck and the Republicans broke their pattern and nominated John McCain, yet another damaged war veteran, someone born to lose.

Among McCain’s problems was the conflict that damaged him was the Vietnam war. It was a war no one wanted to revisit. Indeed, when Dole ran in ‘96, it was at the height of the “Greatest Generation” craze. Dole profited from that, but nothing else. The Vietnam war in the 2008 primaries was shouldered by Hillary Clinton and, finally, Democrats turned away from Hillary and it: it was the war her husband, Bill, had managed to avoid. One reason Barack Obama won the nomination is that the electorate was tired of both the Vietnam war and the Clintons.

Obama represented the future. Boy, the public was thirsting for the future, to put behind them the Bush family, the Iraq and Afghanistan war, the Wall Street meltdown. They wanted to turn the page and no page was more different than Barack Obama. But when they fianlly read the page, it turned out to be the same old, same old.

Now, in 2012, we have a GOP with a unappetizing choice, devoid of damaged war vets; in fact, there are two chicken hawks available, with no more military service between them than Bill Clinton had: both Romney and Newt Gingrich had deferments from the draft, and when the lottery was inaugurated, Romney drew a high number. By that time, Gingrich had children from his marriage to his former history teacher.

Everyone, though, of the appropriate generation, has been damaged one way or another by the Vietnam war. Only Ron Paul, ancient as he is, brings up Romney and Gingrich’s lack of service, since he served in the Air Force from 1963 - 68 as a medical officer. It is nothing short of amazing to listen to Ron Paul take on (in his “victory” speech after his fourth place finish in the Florida primary) the mantle of the only anti-war candidate in the field, both Democrat and Republican. Apparently, it is one of the major things that attracts the young to his candidacy.

After Florida, it appears to one and all to be a “two man” race. Romney, like George W., is assuming the role of the patrician candidate, son of George Romney, born in Mexico, but a future presidential wanna-be (the birthers were a generation late; but John McCain had the same problem, since he was born in the Panama Canal zone), a governor of Michigan and a member of the Nixon Cabinet.

Gingrich will continue to be a pest, though it is not out of the world of probability to imagine a Romney/Gingrich ticket, if only to “bind” the splintered party together.

But, and this is a large but, Mitt Romney has one positive precedent hidden in his history that may ultimately benefit him. Romney personifies everything associated with Wall Street and the beleaguered 1%. He is the person who represents the 2008 meltdown, the cause of wealth disappearing everywhere (except into Swiss accounts and banks in the Cayman islands), the reason TARP and both the Bush and Obama administration spent the peoples money to bail out the too-big-to-fail financial industry.

One would think someone who represents to a tee everything the majority of Americans finds reprehensible in recent history could not win the presidency a mere four years after the crash and the start of the Great Recession.

Yes, one might think that. But here is the counter example: what would be the odds that seven years after 9/11 a man with the middle name Hussein would be elected President of the United States? A trillion to one? That is the precedent that Romney may be counting on. That the voters of America will do something totally unexpected and then suffer their bitter disappointment later, silently or not so silently, given their past precedents.